When you see someone in a wheelchair, what is your reaction? Do you say “hi” or look the other way? Have you wondered how that person would like to be treated?
I recently had surgery and had to rely on a wheelchair to get around. While the wheelchair helped me out, it sometimes was frustrating. It was difficult to maneuver around in our home, and outside we had to be careful with sidewalk cracks, curbs and going uphill. If I sat too long, it became uncomfortable. Taking it in and out of the car was tiring for my husband.
Still it got me where I wanted to go, and I was grateful for that.
Being in public
When we were out in the public, I started noticing disturbing reactions from some people. Most people were helpful and opened doors for us or let us pass first. But sometimes people would bump into me when passing; they never stopped to apologize. They didn’t seem to have much patience if I was in front of them. They didn’t realize how awkward it is to try to go around objects or get into an elevator.
Another thing I noticed is that people sometimes would look the other way if they saw us coming. Some would say “Hi” and then put their heads down as they walked past.
This all reminded me of an interview I did several years ago with a bright young lady named Karen who had spent most of her life in a wheelchair. She was born with a genetic disease called Friedreich’s ataxia. By age 13, she was mostly confined to a wheelchair.
When we first met Karen, she was in her teen years. We became good friends with her and with her family. She was always smiling and laughing, and she had a very positive attitude.
One time I asked Karen if she would allow me to write an article for a church newsletter about her difficulties of being physically disabled and what it was like to practically live in a wheelchair. She was then 32 years old. She consented to my request.
I asked her if she would describe what it’s like to be disabled and to have to use a wheelchair.
“When you first become disabled, you have to learn how to get used to being disabled, what you can or cannot do,” explained Karen. “Then you have to learn how to do things differently as the disease progresses. I still dream normal dreams, and in those dreams I walk and run like everyone else.”
I then asked Karen how people treated her when they saw her in a wheelchair.
“People don’t know how to communicate with someone in a wheelchair. One time a lady came up to me and talked to me like I was a little child.”She said, “People don’t know how to communicate with someone in a wheelchair. One time a lady came up to me and talked to me like I was a little child. Some people treat me as being mentally disabled because I’m in a wheelchair. Some people just pass me by as if they don’t see me. They sometimes hit my feet or legs when they’re close to me. They think I don’t have feelings there, but I do.
“People should try to imagine what it is like to be in a wheelchair,” Karen continued. “I wish other adults would treat me like an adult. I really like kids. They will come up close and talk to me.”
Karen stated that members of her church (her “church family”) had always been helpful.
“Being disabled in the church is more relaxing, and people do come up and talk to me. I should have died when I was about 16 years, but here I am, 32 years old. God has blessed me,” she told me with a big, beautiful smile.
(Karen was 100-percent disabled at that time. Her condition worsened, and she died a couple of years later.)
Friendship lessons to learn
Karen’s story and my own experience have impressed on me a little of what it’s like to be disabled and in a wheelchair. It’s made me try to consider how a person in a wheelchair would like to be treated.
Karen did not want sympathy. Karen and others like her understand that it’s difficult for some people to know what to say. They do not want to be treated like an invisible person, avoided entirely or stared at. They do not want to be talked down to. If you accidentally bump into a disabled person, just apologize. Some people are not paralyzed and have feelings in their body, arms and legs.
If you pass a person with a disability, give him or her a big smile. Most of us need a smile in our direction every so often. If you would like to converse with someone in a wheelchair, it would help if you can find a place to sit down and talk at eye level, and be straight in front of the person so he or she doesn’t have to turn to see you.
Don’t ignore people in wheelchairs as if they are invisible, and don’t look away from them as you pass by. Acknowledge them with a “Hello, good to see you. How are you?” Remember to treat people with disabilities like you want to be treated (see Matthew 7:12 and our article “The Golden Rule”).
Realize, too, some disabled people may be physically in pain, depressed or suffering from emotional problems. Some may have mental disabilities and may not be able to communicate. They may not want to engage in a conversation at this time. You can still acknowledge them with a smile, a nod of the head or a simple greeting as you pass by.
We need to understand that most people with disabilities are just like you and me, with similar feelings, thoughts and desires.
Some young children do not seem to have much of a problem communicating with people with disabilities. Maybe we need to imitate these children in this respect and not hold back on going to a person with disabilities and just start talking with him or her. In fact, many children are comfortable talking to the disabled, the elderly and just about anyone. Encourage your children to do this often, and strive to learn from them! Read the article “Like Little Children: Lessons for Life.”